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Briscoe Center Opens "Always Hitting a Nerve," Exhibit of Ben Sargent's Cartoons

April 18, 2011

Ben Sargent, a self-portrait, courtesy of Ben Sargent.
Self-portrait courtesy of Ben Sargent.

AUSTIN, Texas - "Always Hitting a Nerve: Editorial Cartoons by Ben Sargent," a retrospective exhibit of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning Austin American-Statesman cartoonist's remarkable 35-year career, opens April 20 at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. The exhibit is drawn from the Ben Sargent Collection, which Sargent and the Austin American-Statesman donated to the Briscoe Center. The exhibit is on display from April 20 through August 31, 2011, at the Briscoe Center's Research and Collections Division located in Sid Richardson Hall, Unit 2.

Sargent drew more than 8,000 editorial cartoons during his tenure at the Austin American-Statesman. He attracted a devoted and large following of readers, who enjoyed his unique ability to lampoon state officials and political leaders. No topic escaped his attention, from the Texas legislature to the First Amendment, from the U.S. presidency to international conflicts. He regularly poked fun at elected leaders' handling of the perennial issues of taxation, lobbying, legislative re-districting, school finance, insurance, and prison reform.

Divided into seven sections, the exhibit showcases Sargent's satirizing of state government; his "sharp barbs" at various Texas governors; Americans' love-hate relationship with freedom of the press; the travails of ordinary citizens; the successes and failures of the occupants of the White House; the struggle to attain world peace; and his distinctive portfolio of cartoons that won him the Pulitzer Prize. Sargent's publications and his personal collection of cartoonist's tools are also included in the exhibit.

Slide show of Ben Sargent cartoons.

"Ben Sargent is a giant of editorial cartooning," said historian H. W. Brands. "Sargent developed a visual style that was instantly recognizable. His stock characters—the bloated banker, the jaded bureaucrat, the waif representing the public—appropriately ooze greed, insensitivity, and pathos. Sargent's painstaking attention to detail contrasts sharply with the primitivism that increasingly passed for cartoon art during the late twentieth century."

"The Ben Sargent Collection is an outstanding addition to the Briscoe Center's archive documenting the history of the U.S. News Media," said Dr. Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center. "Our archive documents every aspect of the news business in United States. Traditionally, editorial cartoons have played a key role in the effort to convey important editorial opinions in a powerful and easily understood manner. Ben Sargent's prize-winning work is a noteworthy example of this journalistic tradition."

Born in Amarillo in 1948 as a sixth-generation Texan, Sargent grew up in a newspaper family. He studied journalism while in high school and college. At the University of Texas at Austin, Sargent served as editorial page editor for the Daily Texan. He earned a B. A. degree in journalism with honors in 1970.

Sargent has published Texas Statehouse Blues (1980) and Big Brother Blues: The Editorial Cartoons of Ben Sargent (1984). He illustrated Arthur's Austin ABC (Arturo en Austin: un abecedario), a bilingual children's book (1980); Buying, Renting, and Borrowing in Texas: the Rules of the Game (1980); Murphy's Rules and Other Strange Stuff from Space Gamer (1980); and How the Critters Created Texas (1982).

Speaking about the role of editorial cartoonists to identify and crystallize issues, Sargent said, "We can say what we really think. A black-and-white opinion is probably best suited to a cartoon, because a cartoonist doesn't really have the luxury of saying 'on the other hand' like an editorial writer does."

Exhibit hours are Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. For more information on hours and location, please call (512) 495-4518.

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